Happy Mongol Holidays!

Happy New Year from Western Mongolia!

This whole holiday week has been a pretty fantastic one. On Christmas Day, I wrangled Other English Teacher and my Korean friend into hitting the town square and playing on all the festive holiday obstacles they’ve got going on there. These include:

1) An ice skating rink of the most ghetto variety, i.e., they threw down some lake water and gave it 5 minutes in the -20s before people started playing on it but who cares, ICE SKATING:
2) Giant ice slides SHAPED LIKE SWANS:
3) Ice animals!:
and 4) A massive ice Gandalf Santa because reasons:
I’m not totally sure how long all of this ice amazingness will be in the square, but from what I’ve discovered about Mongolia, I wouldn’t be surprised if they stayed until they melted–which, seeing as how snow apparently stays on the ground until May, won’t be for a good long time.

After running around like idiots, it was off to the university New Year’s party for us English teachers. The party was in a local hotel and it was very, very sparkly.
There were entertaining student-choreographed dances:
And a whole lot of Mongol waltzing which is both awesome and, given the amount of waltzers that crowd onto the tiny dance floor, less like waltzing and more like an enthusiastic round of Viennese bumper cars.
Santa Clause (aka, one of my juniors in a beard) made a brief appearance and gave all us teachers juice for (presumably) being good this year.
At some point the Elf and I did a song on the ukulele, which we found out we were supposed to do exactly two hours before we had to do it. Surprise Mongol concerts are doing wonders for my stage fright.
Also, no one told me I was supposed to bring a prom dress and my weight in glitter, so compared with my students, I was a tiny bit somewhat maybe a lot really really under-dressed. But, you know, whatevs.
The day after Christmas was spend baking like a fiend in preparation for my super cool and very grown-up expat Christmas party in which we sat around in a giant circle vaguely reminiscent of AA meetings and talked about whatever. Unlike AA meetings, however, we had copious amounts of liquor.

It's very grown up to have all your food in the kitchen. The pigs in the blanket lent the entire party a certain air of sophistication. Well, those plus vodka.
It’s very grown up to have all your food in the kitchen. The pigs in the blanket lent the entire party a certain air of sophistication. Well, those plus the vodka.

We rang in 2015 with Tracy Chapman and a vodka toast. It was a quiet end to a fabulous year and a nice beginning to what I can only assume will be a fabulous new one.

Happy Mongol Holidays, everyone!


Puppies, boots, and Chinese lanterns

Hey all! Nothing super major has gone down in the last few weeks, but lots of fun little things have happened:

I sat puppies! There are three long-term expat couples in Khovd–two of them recently left the country for various reasons, which resulted in a pretty invigorating round of musical dogs as people left and came back at different times and took care of each other’s pets. One of the dogs involved had recently had not one, not two, but nine puppies–and someone was needed to take care of them in order to fill in a four-day gap in the musical dogs game. Enter me, because I a) love puppies, and b) worked for this petsitting company once, so I’m basically an expert. Or something.

Petsitting in Mongolia is a pretty far cry from petsitting in suburban Jersey, because petsitting in Jersey never required peeing outside in -20° or making a fire to keep you and the puppies from freezing to death. The good news is that I can now make fires: throw a bucket of coal in, pile on the wood, shove some paper in there, hit the whole thing with a blow torch (repeatedly, while cursing) for an hour until it lights, while all the while hungry puppies make hungry puppy noises and you’re all like YOU UNGRATEFUL MONGRELS, I AM TRYING TO SAVE YOUR LIVES HERE.

It was actually a really fun weekend. Every night I pulled a couple puppies out of the box, gave them a baby-wipe bath, and let them cuddle on my lap while we watched movies like The Last King of Scotland and The English Patient, and when I say “we,” I mean “I watched movies and the little bastards passed out ten minutes in.” Random side note: why is The English Patient the worst movie I’ve ever seen? Contemplate how everyone in that movie sucks at making decisions and Ralph Fiennes is creepy with personal-space issues. While you’re doing that, look at some pictures of puppies:

Adam, Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Frankincense, Gideon, Milly, and Cat Woman. Just don't ask me which is which.
Adam, Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Frankincense, Gideon, Milly, and Cat Woman. Just don’t ask me which is which.

Hi, momma.
Hi, momma.


Mongol boots!
I have coveted Mongolian boots since the moment I got here.

I know you saw this guy’s boots before you saw his spinal problems.

Enter Operation Foreign Footwear, in which I’ve been scoping out the Khovd market for months looking at boots and working up the courage to try some on.

About two weeks ago one of my Peace Corps friends was going boot shopping in the market with one of her coworkers and invited me to tag along and maybe finally try on/buy some Mongol boots. While we were walking around, I casually mentioned that I really like the hardcore traditional Mongol boots and I’d be interested in buying some. “Oh no,” said PCF’s coworker, “those are only for wrestlers.” Damn. Thinking fast, PCF nudged me and said, “Buy them for your dad.” PCF happens to be a genius.

“Well,” I said, “if I can’t get them for myself, then I’d really like to some for my dad.”
“Oh of course. What size is your dad?”
“Coincidentally, the same size as me.”

So I did! We hit up almost everyone selling boots until the last guy pulled these bad boys out and I was like YES MUST PURCHASE.
So I tried them on, and they were dad’s size–so I asked PCF, “PCF, would my dad look dumb in these?” “No, I think your dad would look awesome.” “PCF, could my dad wear these to a bar?” “I think your dad would be the coolest person in the bar if he did.” “PCF, what would my dad wear with these?” “Basically anything.” So I bought them. For dad, of course.

The thing is, they’re not designed for left and right feet–they’re the same boot, twice, which is just how they make them. This means that my options are “wear these boots to events that only require standing around and looking awesome,” or “resign myself to ambulating about as elegantly as a velociraptor with polio.” Don’t even care, because awesome boots.

Merry Christmas, dad! Thanks for letting me wear your boots for the indefinite future!

Chinese Lantern fail
A couple nights ago, our Russian friends called us up; apparently, it was Buddha’s birthday and the temple was having a party. So we went.

Here are some pictures of the temple in daylight, it’s actually really pretty:
Amusingly, it is right across the street from Mongolworld*, an amusement park that appears to be open exactly never.
*May not actually be the park’s name.

Back to Buddha’s birthday.

When we arrived, it was at the end of a very long day for the monks and baby monks(novices? initiates? interns?). They had been chanting for 10+ hours, so we listened, walked around the temple, turned the turney-thingies, looked at the statues, got stared at, and eventually bought ourselves some Chinese lanterns. After about half an hour, the crowd of Mongols inside the building filed out to the yard and started lighting their lanterns, so we followed suit.
Our Russian friends had done this before, but the whole Chinese lantern thing was new to us and it took three of us a good ten minutes to get mine lit. We finally got it burning, so I held on tight and thought very, very carefully about my wish.
Then I let it go, and watched it soar gracefully up to the heavens, taking my wish with it.
Question: what does it mean if the ball of fire inflating your wish falls out of the lantern and almost hits a child in the face? I’m asking for a friend.

My very entertaining students

Some days–when I can’t get them to shut up and/or stop taking selfies in class–my students are obnoxious. Most days they’re perfectly fine, and some days they are so hilarious they make me laugh so hard I cry. Here are some of my favorites from the first semester:

The Thanksgiving Day fiasco
On Thanksgiving, I decided to do (what I thought would be) a fun exercise in which my students, pretending to be turkeys, had to convince us to eat their partner instead of them. It basically went like this:
Me: First group, come on up.
Student A: Please don’t eat me, I am skinny. Student B is fat. You should eat Student B.
Me: Urgh, well, I wouldn’t call Student B fat per se…Student B, why don’t you go?
Student B: My partner is very very fat. Eat Student A.
Me: Yes, well, very interesting. Next group, your turn.
Student C: Look at me, I poor, I hungry, I thin. Do not eat me. Eat partner, partner is very very fat.
Me: Oh dear. Student D?
Student D: I have very hard meat, not soft, because skinny. Student C is very soft and fat.
Me: Yes, yes, morbidly obese, next group please.
Student E: My partner is so fat.
Student F: Do not eat me. I have 15 babies. Student E has no babies. Eat Student E.
Student: Also, she is fat.
Me: …

The perils of the Mongolian wilderness
One of my classes, after a lesson spent reading/studying fairy tales, was tasked with updating their fairy tale of choice to take place in Mongolia. One group was having some serious pronunciation problems. I stepped in to help. We drilled this pronunciation for, no lie, ten minutes, and I thought for sure they had it down. Alas, Hansel and Gretel (or should I say Bat and Tsetseg) were unfortunately abandoned by their mean dad in the middle of the Gobi dessert, where they would have died had they not found a ger made out of cheese curd.

Simon Says “Exercise!”
We were playing Simon Says to practice imperatives. The student who was currently Simon said, “Simon says, ‘swing your hips!'” But since it legit took her forever to think of another command, the rest of the class was left swinging their hips for a solid five minutes. When Simon finally said “Stop,” Teacher Tina made the mistake of saying “Whew! That was a work-out for my abs!” This immediately set all the other students chattering excitedly in Mongolian before one of them started pushing her hands together and twisting them. “Teacher, Teacher! How say this?” And gestured. “I’m sorry, what?” “How say this in English?” “What…your breasts?” “YES, TEACHER, BREASTS. SIMON SAYS DO EXERCISE, MAKE BREASTS BIGGER.”

Of course Teacher, being an idiot, attempted to argue with them: “Guys, no, that’s not how that works. You can’t make your breasts bigger by pushing your hands together.”


Teacher needs have words with Simon.

Taxi Drivers and Police Officers
While doing our movie unit, my students had to, in small groups, write and act out a scene from a movie of their own invention. That entire class was comedy gold–it included a horror movie called “A Letter Came From Hell” that involved a murderer frantically running around the underworld screaming “WHERE I AM? WHERE I AM?”, a romance called “The Truest Rose” that involved Charlie Chaplin seducing Angelina Jolie while another dude who was into her sat in the background and cried, and a thriller called “What About Jack?” that entirely consisted of the following conversation: “Is this Jack’s brother? “Yes.” “SHUDDUP. YOU GIVE ME ONE MILLION DOLLARS OR I KILL JACK.”

But my personal favorite was a scene from an action movie called “Taxi Drivers and Police Officers” in which a girl is pulled over by a cop for speeding. “Wait, wait,” she says to the police officer, “Let me call my brother, he is taxi driver.” The taxi driver-brother was played by another girl, who promptly pulled up to the scene and said to the cop, “Are you a cop?” When the cop–played by one of only two dudes in that class–said yes, the girl-brother slapped him so hard across the face that the kid flew backwards. I laughed so hard my students thought I was dying, and I didn’t feel super bad about it because the kid with the hand print on his face was laughing really hard too.

There you have it: it’s been a pretty enjoyable semester. Hopefully after finals my students won’t hate me too much, so that next semester will be equally as enjoyable!

Happy 35th birthday, Khovd University!

First, huge apologies for the blogging hiatus. Constructions workers in a neighboring province were doing construction (duh) and somehow managed to slice through the cable providing internet to all of Khovd city/province (it wasn’t totally clear which). In typical Mongolia fashion, no one knew anything, so in typical Mongolia fashion, we shrugged out shoulders and resigned ourselves to being surprised when the internet came back. It did, after almost a week, but since it’s been back it’s been even crappier than normal, so uploading pictures and video from Khovd University’s birthday bash had to wait a few days.

Anyway, back to the story.

Khovd University turned 35! Slash was celebrating 25 years since Khovd students were instrumental in the democratic movement in Mongolia (or something), so there was a weekend of festivities to be had.

The main event of the Khovd bash was a university concert at the theater put on by the students and teachers. The foreign teachers had been asked to come up with something, so myself and my also-ukulele-playing cohort the Elf (English Language Fellow) had put together a song for the concert on Saturday. Except on Friday night we discovered two things: 1) the concert was now Sunday, reasons unknown, and 2) we needed to haul our butts down to the university half an hour ago to do our song for the concert organizers so they could make sure we didn’t suck/play Insane Clown Posse. So we played a song, it wasn’t Insane Clown Posse, the organizer dude was happy, and we were done.

JUST KIDDING there are cameras and you have say something on them because you’re white and we need white people so the university looks good on national TV, kay? Wait, no, sing a song and THEN say something.

Rolling with things is a skill I am artfully cultivating, and this time we got rolled in front of a Christmas tree made out of VHS tapes, where we played our song, said our schtick and went home to ponder the general strangeness of our lives.

I was walking down the stairs on Saturday morning when I ran into one of my coworkers who was like “Spontaneous dress rehearsal at the theater RIGHT NOW, but you can come in an hour.” So I called up my Elf friend, and we headed over, where we sat around for a very enjoyable two hours watching the other students/teachers perform before we peaced out to do work and told them to call us when they needed us on stage.

Blurry picture of the teacher’s rehearsing their Russian military song, there was lots of marching and cool hats.

A few hours later we got the call, so we ran back over and were immediately ushered onto the stage for the dress rehearsal…which we weren’t actually dressed for. We were supposed to be wearing “traditional clothes,” but I don’t own petticoats and the Elf had left his Pilgrim buckle hat at home. It took some doing, but we finally convinced the concert organizers that we would not dress like hooligans.

A disappointing lack of pilgrim buckle hats and Puritanical values.

Festivities day! I went to the opening ceremonies at 8 am (Mongol Time: 9.15), which probably would have been interesting if I had understood anything. As it was, the most interesting part for me was my calculated sneaking past the girl in the door who was holding out a bowl of milk for everyone to drink from as they went in, mostly because I had no idea a) if was was actually milk (i.e., not fermented), b) what she was doing, and c) what the protocol was for clueless foreigners.

Good news, apparently it’s a) actually milk, and b) a luck thing.

Also, there was morin khuur, aka Monglian horsehead fiddle, which I have discovered I am more or less a morin-whore for. I will sit through anything, no matter how long-winded and boring, and not consider it a waste as long as you can promise me some morin khuur because that instrument is amazing.

After the opening ceremonies there was naptime (not scheduled), followed by something in the main square that I didn’t understand but there were balloons so it must have been important.

A few hours later, we headed over the theater to watch the last-minute rehearsals. This in itself was really entertaining, as we were watching the concert-opening dance. Students in traditional costumes stood in front of the stage and did a dance before welcoming other students all carrying props representing their majors (personal favorite: the girl with the taxidermied duck because, you know, biology), who then also did a dance.
We watched them rehearse this dance twice before they decided they were good to go. Then, and only then, were we told that we the foreign teachers were supposed to be doing this dance with them, but it’s cool, we watched it right, so we can follow?

Sure. Totally. And that’s how we did a dance that mostly consisted of swaying/clapping with some air-punching to a Michael Jackson/Mongolian song mash-up.

THEN it was speech time, and if there’s anything I have learned about Mongolia, it’s Don’t Ask Questions, but after that, it’s Mongols Love Speeches. Which are fun for a little while as I test my Mongolian against them, but fifteen minutes later after I’ve thoroughly disheartened myself by realizing I only understand numbers, pronouns, and the occasional verb, they are distinctly less fun, especially because being concise is not an Olympic event the Mongols will be winning anytime soon AND there was no redeeming morin khuur. So my Elf friend and I commandeered a staircase backstage and had a ukulele jam session for an hour and a half, which was pretty fabulous.

Except at this point it had been about seven hours since I’d eaten anything, and the speeches had been going on for two hours, so I figured I had more than enough time to run home and shove some bread in my face, especially because I live less than a minute from the theater. Except of course the second I got home I got a CONCERT ACTUALLY STARTING NOW text from Other English Teacher, so I had to promptly turn around and fly back to the theater like I was being chased by all the demons in Hades. And I did it in heels.

The concert itself was pretty spectacular. Mongolian traditional music and dance are some of my favorite things about living here, and there was plenty of both to be had. One dude went on stage and busted out some pretty insane overtone singing, which was amazing. And then it was our turn:

We stuck around for the rest of the concert and then headed off to the reception, where this time I did not sneak past the girl with the milk, I drank it. Then we had to sit through some more speeches that I tried to pay attention to but was slightly distracted by the enthusiastic drunk man next to me leering at my left ear. But then there was a morin khuur, so leer away. There was also lots of delicious food, including a sheep head with brain attached that I might have found delicious if I hadn’t made the decision to stick to the delicious rice.

And thus concludes the Khovd University anniversary festivities.

Morin-whore, over and out.